Owen Hart was a promising WWE superstar throughout the 1990s, but his life and career were cut short when he fell to his death in front of a live audience during a pay-per-view event in 1999.
On May 23, 1999, Canadian wrestler Owen Hart, known by his stage name The Blue Blazer, fell to his death off-camera during a pay-per-view event as he prepared to make a stunt entrance from the rafters of the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri.
The next evening, wrestling fans tuned in to an atypically somber, quiet episode of Raw is War. Rather than being greeted with WWE’s (then WWF) usual in-your-face pyrotechnics and high-energy aggression, viewers saw almost the entire roster of WWE wrestlers in grief, gathered together on the entrance ramp for a 10-bell salute.
The night of Owen Hart’s death was one that changed wrestling forever. According to Sports Illustrated, announcer Jim Ross addressed the audience directly, promising 10 matches for the evening as well as “the candid and very, very real sentiments” of the WWE stars who worked alongside Owen Hart.
The typical bombast of professional wrestling had, for a moment, faded away, revealing that beneath the makeup and flashy suits, the people performing outrageous stunts on television were still very much human.
This is the story of Owen Hart, his devastating death, and the legacy he left behind.
Owen Hart: Born To Wrestle
The Hart wrestling family, or the Hart Dynasty, had been a name long known in the wrestling world by the time Owen James Hart was born on May 7, 1965. His parents, Stu and Helen Hart, were the owners and operators of Stampede Wrestling, and Stu had been an amateur and professional wrestler for years himself.
Together, Stu and Helen had 12 children, eight of whom were boys. Owen Hart was the youngest.
Given their upbringing, it’s not surprising that at least some of the Hart children would find their way into the wrestling world. In fact, all eight of the Hart sons would go on to become wrestlers. But it was Bret and Owen who would rise to considerable fame inside the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment).
Owen Hart got his start wrestling in high school and continued the sport into college at the University of Calgary. However, as his wife Martha would later explain in her book Broken Harts, her husband didn’t initially intend for wrestling to be his career. But as fate would have it, nothing else quite panned out for him, and he found himself training with his father in the famed “Hart Dungeon.”
By 1987, Owen Hart was one of the hottest up-and-comers in wrestling, and Pro Wrestling Illustrated named him Rookie of the Year, according to a Bleacher Report career retrospective.
The Rise Of The Blue Blazer
Not long after, Hart joined Vince McMahon’s WWE as the Blue Blazer. The Blue Blazer wore a mask and was a sort of superhero of the wrestling mythos during a time when wrestling very much revolved around “heroes” and “villains.” Unfortunately, matches were set up so that the Blue Blazer beat other newcomers with relatively little trouble but was relegated to defeat against wrestling’s biggest stars.
In 1989, Hart wound up leaving the WWE after a match against Mr. Perfect, who, in the eyes of McMahon, had more star power. The Blue Blazer lost the match and subsequently abandoned the company, opting instead to participate in competitions around the world.
In 1993, however, Owen Hart would return to the WWE, wrestling alongside his brothers Keith, Bruce, and Bret in a match against Shawn Michaels and the Knights. And to great surprise, the match ended with Owen being the only member of his family to be eliminated — before re-entering the ring to confront Bret, kicking off a family feud that would become the focal point of his career.
The Hart Brothers’ Rivalry Became One Of The Greatest Wrestling Stories Of All Time
In November 1993, Bret Hart was the top babyface in the WWE. A former WWE champion, Bret suggested a year-long narrative that would see him facing off in a sibling rivalry against his brother Owen.
Beginning with Survivor Series 1993, in which the four Hart brothers squared off against Shawn Michaels and the Knights, the captivating saga would see Owen Hart transform from a masked superhero to an embittered villain.
In January 1994, Owen and Bret teamed up once again, this time for a Tag Team Championship match against the Quebecers. During the match, Bret sustained an injury to his knee but would not tag Owen in. Eventually, with Bret unable to continue and Owen stuck on the sidelines, the referee called the match in favor of the Quebecers. Frustrated, Owen kicked Bret’s leg out from beneath him and stormed out of the ring.
The brothers eventually settled the score at WrestleMania X when they went toe-to-toe in the ring. The match ended with Owen Hart victorious over his brother in his greatest career win to date.
From Owen Hart Went From Hero To Villain And Back Again
Over the course of the next two years, the Harts continued to face off against one another, with Owen officially making the transition from hero to villain.
Owen Hart eventually teamed up with fellow villain Yokozuna to win a tag team championship match against the Smoking Guns and joined the villainous WWE faction “Camp Cornette,” solidifying himself as one of the top villains in the company.
Owen Hart quickly established a new rivalry in the company with Shawn Michaels, the Heartbreak Kid. Hart bested Michaels in a November 1995 match and frequently reminded fans that he had been the one who sidelined the Heartbreak Kid. But in February 1996, Michaels struck back with a vengeance and scored a win against Hart, putting an end to their rivalry.
Hart’s villainous streak in WWE continued for another year until Owen once again reunited with his brother Bret, this time to re-establish the Hart Foundation, which would become the most hated act on any U.S. WWE show. This hatred, however, was a boon to the WWE, as the Hart Foundation made for excellent villains and kept fans coming back for more.
But by 1999, Owen Hart was tired of playing the villain and decided to make a comeback as the Blue Blazer. Of course, wrestling had changed by then, and his heroic costume seemed like a gimmicky callback to a bygone era of the sport.
Hart, to his credit, leaned heavily into the gimmick, turning a cringeworthy revival into an endearing and entertaining performance. Unfortunately, the Blue Blazer’s over-the-top showmanship led Hart to attempt the stunt that ultimately led to his death.
How Owen Hart Died And What Caused It
Roughly 75 minutes into a WWE pay-per-view event at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, Owen Hart prepared to descend from the arena rafters as his match was introduced. Hart had performed the stunt before. He was to be hooked to a cable and lowered into the ring.
Instead, witnesses in attendance saw Hart fall 78 feet and hit his head. At first, fans thought it was part of the act. They quickly discovered that it wasn’t.
“We thought it was a doll at first,” 15-year-old fan Robert McCome told CNN at the time. “We thought they were just playing with us. We were really shocked when we found out that it was no joke.”
Some witnesses reported seeing the cable snap, while others said it seemed as if Hart had never even been hooked in the first place. Some said they saw Hart’s head snap backward when he smacked against one of the ring’s padded turnbuckles.
Medics rushed into the ring to perform CPR on Hart before he was transferred to Truman Medical Center in Kansas City, where he was pronounced dead. He was 34 years old.
“I didn’t see it, but from what I can gather, somebody slipped up,” Stu Hart said. “You don’t get up 60 or 70 feet in the air without being properly anchored down. I haven’t talked to Vince McMahon yet, but somebody was careless or missed something or else Owen would still be here.”
A subsequent investigation into the accident determined that a subtle movement may have triggered his quick-release harness to unhitch. Still, whatever the cause, the result was the same: WWE start Owen Hart had died, just a couple of years before he planned to retire.
As WWE’s president Vince McMahon said, Owen Hart’s death was “the worst thing to ever happen in the business, to the nicest guy who ever was in the business.” To this day, he is remembered as one of the company’s all-time best wrestlers and performers.
For more stories from the world of wrestling, read about Abraham Lincoln’s surprising career as a national wrestling champion. Or, read about the death of Chris Benoit, the WWE star who killed his family and then himself.